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Embracing the Mind Games and Bad Runs

I recently came across the following short movie about the mind games runners face when choosing to run and challenge themselves on a daily basis. I think it’s a great snapshot if internal battles that go through our heads when we try to do something outside our comfort zone:

Yes, it’s hard to go out and run with temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius, it’s hard to go out and run in rain or even snow. And when you do it, the internal battles don’t end. You think you won’t be able to run more than a mile today, your legs are heavy, the water puddle appears out of nowhere and your feet are wet now… The list of “reasonable” excuses seems endless.

And this isn’t specific to running, of course. We play that sort of mind games when it comes to other tasks that are difficult and (usually) non urgent. Going into super productive mode when facing a deadline or pressure from someone comes naturally to us, but when you choose to do something for your own good, like a New Year’s resolution… ah, that’s when the mind games come into play.

And it’s that sort of mind games I personally often face when it comes to blogging. I’ll finish this blog post tomorrow… What if my ideas aren’t good enough? Someone is better at this than I am…

But if there’s something I’ve learnt from running on my own, it’s that the effort pays off in the end. Mind games are part of the challenge, and the trick is to take it slowly, one run at a time, stick to your schedule, and not let the bad runs stop you. Oh yes, there will be bad runs in the mix, you can count on it. But in the end it’s those runs that count the most and make you stronger. Because afterwards, you feel like a hero, and you won the game against the part of you that wants to keep you safe by doing nothing.


So, what are you waiting for? Go take that run, publish that blog post that has been collecting dust as a draft for way too long now, take the trip you’ve always wanted to take, start that big personal project you’ve been putting off. Just don’t fear the bad runs.

Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2010/12/embracing-mind-games-and-bad-runs.html

Saving Bear Cubs in Cataclysm - or - the Story of Why E-learning Needs Game Designers

This week Cataclysm, the third, long-awaited expansion for the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft (WoW), has finally been released. The expansion brought many changes to the game and completely redesigned Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms, the two old continents that have been part of the game since its launch. In a sense, it does feel like a new game all together, and even experienced players have to relearn many aspects of the game.

But I’m not here to talk about all the game changes and complain about the missing portals in Outland and Northrend. Instead, I’d like to play a bit with some of the new elements of the game that facilitate learning and could be used to improve serious (aka not fun) online learning.

It must be said that WoW has never been a difficult game to learn. The basic mechanics and interface elements are pretty straightforward and easy to pick up even for casual players like myself. But I’ve got a feeling they took everything even a step further in the new expansion. Let’s take a look at examples I’ve encountered so far as I’m trying to level up my gnome mage to level 85. So please, hop on my flying gryphon, so I can show you around.

Just in time learning

Cataclysm seems to be really good at providing simple tips to guide you through the game. For instance, as you reach a new level, you get notified of any new abilities or talent points that are available to you. A small, but very useful reminder.

Similar tips have also been implemented in some of the quests (missions you complete in the game). Apart from tips and hints in the quest instructions, you now also get easy to follow tips as you do the quest. For instance, tips on the procedure needed to complete the quest: 1) equip the lance, 2) now mount the bird, 3) ok, now click the button to flap the wings and make the bird fly! Easy to understand, and displayed just when you need it; you’re not told how to fly the bird unless you’ve got your lance ready and have saddled up the bird.

Sounds simple, yes? So why don’t we display tips like that in our online learning environments? “Stuck on the task? Head to the forum and ask for help!” And by the way, by tips I don’t mean a whole set of complex instructions; we all know few people read the manual. By tips I mean simple to understand one line suggestions on what you should do next. For example, “Don’t forget to replace the lance with your main weapon after you’ve completed the quest!”

Challenges you care about

While they are still many “Kill n of X, so I can make Y” quests in Cataclysm, you now often get quests that are more meaningful and more fun to do. For instance, one of the quests asked me to climb a tree, pick up the young bear cubs stuck in the trees, climb to the top, and toss them on a trampoline, so they can return to safety. I’ve got to admit I wanted to keep saving the cubs even after I saved the required amount for the quest!

What makes this quest great is that players can easily relate to the theme. You surely don’t want to leave adorable bear cubs stranded in the trees, do you? The quest isn’t just something you have to do to get more experience points, but something you want to do because you care about the bears (and because it’s fun to climb trees).

Similarly, we’re all more willing to learn about things we care about. And we care about things that are relevant to us, about things that touch us on an emotional level. And that can be achieved by telling great stories. Not stories like “Annie has 6 marbles and loses 2, how many does she have left?” (who the hell is Annie and why should I care?), but stories that capture our imagination, that get us involved. How do I save the bears? Won’t they get hurt after I toss them on the trampoline?

Making the player feel part of something bigger

Games have always done a great job at making players feel special. You’re the hero, the future of the world is in your hands; only you can save the princess! And WoW has always emphasized the importance of your actions through quests texts and interactions with various non-player characters in the game. But in Cataclysm, there is even more emphasis on making your storyline personalized (using phasing technology), especially in the starting zones that you go through as a new character.

The experience of starting a new worgen character is a great story on its own, told over and over again for each new player. You start as a human character, helping your people defend your city, which is under attack by the savage worgen beasts. As you’re trying to get more help, you get bitten by one of the creatures, and at one point, you find yourself in jail, accused of turning wild. The world changes around you and the non-player characters help you to fill in the story of what’s going on.

Similarly, as a high level player you are told to take a mercenary ship that will take you to one of the new continents of the expansion. While you wait for the ship to arrive, a group of Stormwind soldiers chatters around you about the recent world events, the Cataclysm. And just by listening to the soldiers, you can learn about what’s new and about Deathwing, the dragon that is the cause of all the changes brought by Cataclysm.

It doesn’t feel like homework, like something you have to do. You just casually listen in to the conversation the characters around you are having. It feels authentic, and it makes the Cataclysm story seem more believable, more tangible.

And a meaningful narrative is often what we fail to convey in online learning environments. We provide students with a series of resources and activities that will supposedly guide them to achieve the desired learning outcomes, but it’s usually all boring, disconnected from reality, just an endless to-do list… Well, it isn’t learning if it isn’t hard, right? Well, no, I believe there must be a way to place fun and learning in the same bag.

Being an active member of the group pays well

Speaking of making the player feel special; Cataclysm also introduced a guild leveling system. Guilds (groups of players) now get experience points through various activities by their members. As a guild levels up, its members can get special perks and abilities. In order to use guild abilities, you have to build up your reputation with your guild by being an active player. So basically, it pays well to be loyal and active in your guild.

WoW Guild (source: WoWCataclysm.net)

Compare that to how groups usually work in our classes. Students, who do nothing, often get rewarded by choosing an active group that covers up for the inactive “player”. Sucks, right? Well, it could be fixed if we also measured a student’s “loyalty” to the group, just like in WoW. Unless you contribute enough, you just can’t get the group perks (i.e. a good grade), so you’re encouraged to play nicely with others and complete group tasks.

But my class just can’t compete with WoW …

I know what you might be thinking - it’s easy to talk about having fun in immersive games like WoW, but making learning fun is just too difficult. Well, guess what? Making games fun isn’t an easy job either! Good game design is both science and art that is difficult to master, and it takes tons of trials and errors to get it just right. WoW has been around since 2004 and in every expansion you can see big, gradual improvements in game design.

So, what I’m suggesting is that we find better ways to apply the lessons learned by game designers to our online learning environments and instructional design. E-learning will probably never be as fun as playing WoW, but can’t we all just try a little harder to make learning a bit more engaging than flipping through sleep inducing “interactive” courseware, and to start telling our students meaningful stories? Perhaps we won’t be saving bear cubs in class, but there are many other missions we all care about and can teach us about what we need to know along the way.

And it doesn’t need to be in 3D or full immersive environments. With a little imagination and clever game design I suspect we could turn our boring text-centered Learning Management Systems into Learning Experience Enabling Technology - LEET systems. We all know many teachers are great storytellers; we just need to find a way to enable them to tell better stories online as well.

Related posts:

Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2010/12/saving-bear-cubs-in-cataclysm-or-story.html

Sharable Bits: The Mystery of Life, Firefox Cuteness, Winter Running

Discovery: Life built with toxic chemicals

Mono Lake Research area (source: NASA)

Why it’s worth sharing: When NASA announced a press conference about a new discovery related to astrobiology, many were hoping for a confirmation of extraterrestrial life. The actual news wasn’t as huge as expected - they found a bacteria living on arsenic right on our home planet - but it’s still significant because it shows how little we actually know about life and how much we tend to assume. I certainly hope the discovery encourages us to keep looking further into space and deeper into our own planet.

More about the discovery:

News: Mozilla project protects the open web and endangered species with cuteness

Why it’s worth sharing: Helping the open web and the insanely adorable red pandas all at once - what’s not to like? :) Great initiative by the Mozilla Project that uses cuteness to remind us about the importance of preserving biodiversity on our planet. So, hop on to FirefoxLive.org for a good dose of cuteness and help spread the word about this awesome project!

Idea: Walking and running on snow made safer

Winter arrived early this year with a big bag of snow. Sure, it’s a nice view from the window when you don’t have to go out, but snow quickly turns into an issue if you’re planning on running outdoors throughout the winter. Luckily I found the perfect solution: YakTrax Pro ice grips that help prevent slipping on packed snow and can be worn on any regular shoe.

Why it’s worth sharing: The most simple ideas can sometimes make a big difference. Not as big of a news as the NASA discovery or endangered species preservation, but nonetheless a great tool that will help me stay fit and healthy during the dark, cold winter. Staying in and being cosy is so tempting that I welcome anything that makes going out a bit easier. I’m actually looking forward to all the snow runs now!

Sharable Bits is a series of weekly posts that will highlight some of the most interesting bits and bytes that I stumble upon. No bad news, just ideas that inspire, touch or entertain in a unique way.

Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2010/12/sharable-bits-mystery-of-life-firefox.html

Sharable Bits: Healthy Computer Use, Technology in Education, Magic iPad Fiddle

Blog post: Eye health in a digital world

Why it’s worth sharing: A good reminder that there are several tools and approaches we can use to avoid health issues related to the use of digital devices. And as someone with several vision problems, I pay extra attention to what we can do to protect our vision. The blog post provides great starting tips, especially the one about taking regular breaks and remembering to blink (sounds obvious, but it isn’t when you are engaged in an epic game battle or get caught in the flow). A tool I often like to use is Time Out, a simple break reminder app for Mac OS X.

Blog post: Technology in Education

Why it’s worth sharing: A great showcase of technology use in education that work and are simple to understand. Always handy to have such lists ready when talking to technology skeptics, who think of anything digital as pure evil. Especially with the media habit of presenting the digital risks before the benefits. The recent NYTimes article Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction does explore both sides, but the headline is still all about distraction. Isn’t it time to challenge that perception?

Video: Fiddle Quartet on the iPad

Why it’s worth sharing: Seeing phones and tablets turned into music instruments with the help of magical mobile apps never stops to amaze me. And I can’t wait to get an iPad just to try Magic Fiddle, the latest app from Smule (developers of Ocarina), which turns your iPad into a fiddle. Isn’t it great to have a single, affordable device that works as dozens of instruments? I sure do hope it brings the joys of playing musical instruments into the hands of more people.

Related posts:

Sharable Bits is a series of weekly posts that will highlight some of the most interesting bits and bytes that I stumble upon. No bad news, just ideas that inspire, touch or entertain in a unique way.

Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2010/11/sharable-bits-healthy-computer-use.html

Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules

We often get caught in thinking about the right and wrong ways of using tools like presentations, blogs, Twitter, and what not. Sure, it helps to know what mistakes to avoid - death by PowerPoint anyone? - but that doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to the “10 rules of [insert sticky title].

A great example: meet Travis Isaacs, user experience designer. He uses Keynote, a presentation software, to create wireframe prototypes for websites. Wait, what?

That’s certainly not in any rulebook or manual, but it sure works. And Travis even figured out how to turn his approach into a product (more about that on Mashable: Essential Web Design Advice From a Wireframing Master).

Somehow that reminds me of a quote from the movie Pirates of The Caribbean:
Elizabeth: You have to take me to shore! According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren—
Barbossa: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement, so I ‘must’ do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the Pirate’s Code to apply, and you’re not. And thirdly, the code is more what you call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner!

So, the next time you discover a fancy list of rules for using this and that, think about whether the rules apply to you (are you a pirate or are you a ninja?) and whether it would be helpful to improvise and invent new rules. Think of the usual ways of using a tool as guidelines, not rules. Sometimes a little hack goes a long way!

Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2010/11/dont-be-afraid-to-break-rules.html

Sharable Bits: Rethinking Innovation, Attention and Social Games

Idea: Rethink the status quo by looking at the big picture

“Facebook to launch e-mail killer” - a popular headline on tech blogs before this week’s Facebook special event dedicated to their Messages service. But luckily, Facebook didn’t listen and didn’t launch (yet another) e-mail service. They tried to think about the way we communicate in a different way. Let’s take a look at the simple idea behind the new Messages with social inbox:

Why it’s worth sharing: Revolutionary design of a new product or service usually happens when you look at everything you know with a fresh perspective. It’s not about adding a long list of features, it’s not about pleasing the tech crowd. It’s about figuring out what works and what people need (not say they want). And while Facebook doesn’t always get things right, they do have the guts to think outside the box and seem to have a real passion about enabling stronger connections among friends. Kudos for that!

Idea: What are you doing to deserve the attention?

Ewan McIntosh uses a dialog from the movie The Social Network to remind us that we often assume we have (or deserve) the attention of our students, colleagues, and other audiences. Let’s take a look at this great clip from the movie:

Why it’s worth sharing: Stop assuming people will listen or care about what you have to say just because you’re talking. Be prepared to earn the attention, trust and respect from your listeners. And that means not just caring about what you’re talking about, but being prepared to present your message in a way that is relevant to the listeners. Want a good case study? Head over to Danah Boyd’s blog and read about why “Bullying” Has Little Resonance with Teenagers.

Blog post: Social Games are here to stay

Why it’s worth sharing: It’s popular to dismiss the success of social games like FarmVille as a fad. But, as Ravi Mehta points out in his Mashable post, social games fill an important niche in the social web and are evolving with new approaches to social fun. And here’s my favorite quote from the post:
“Throughout the history of entertainment media, content has been developed in short and long formats. Five hundred page novels, full-length feature films and television mini-series coexist harmoniously with blogs, 30-minute sitcoms and two-minute YouTube videos. Why? Because each format serves a different purpose and, without subsuming the other formats, manages to engage users in unique ways and for different reasons.”

Sharable Bits is a series of weekly posts that will highlight some of the most interesting bits and bytes that I stumble upon. No bad news, just ideas that inspire, touch or entertain in a unique way.

Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2010/11/sharable-bits-rethinking-innovation.html

Sharable Bits: Living on Facebook, Buildings Coming Alive, Work Smarter

On Sharable Bits: I decided to start a series of weekly posts that will highlight some of the most interesting bits and bytes that I stumble upon. No bad news, just ideas that inspire, touch or entertain.

Video: A life on Facebook

Why it’s worth sharing: A life story told through Facebook status updates. Great music, great execution, the video makes you wonder about how our lives are seen through Facebook. On a related note, it’s worth reading about why some teens deactivate their FB accounts every time they log out to keep total control of what their friends post about them. Facebook as a perfect, edited record of our lives?

Video: Buildings coming alive with 3D projections

Why it’s worth sharing: Though an article on Mashable I came across the amazing work by NuFormer, a company that does incredible life-like 3D projections on buildings. It’s mostly commercial work for various corporate clients, but I think their approach to bringing buildings alive is just awesome. It’s great how their technology fits right in with the architecture of various building and how it adds another layer of experience to familiar object. I really hope to see/experience one of their projections live someday.

Idea: Working smarter not harder

Clive Shepherd reminds us that working harder is not always better, what matters is working smarter. He also shares the quote by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson from ReWork:
“Not only is workaholism unnecessary, it’s stupid. Working more doesn’t mean you care more or get more done. It just means you work more.” 
(… more exerpts from ReWork)
Why it’s worth sharing: It’s good to remember that recharging your batteries now and then is ok. Don’t get caught into the state of super busy, in which never ending meetings, shuffling papers and e-mails keep you busy, but don’t allow you to get any real work done. Stop for a minute, think, breath, and figure out how to work smarter.

Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2010/11/sharable-bits-living-on-facebook.html